Ecocriticism and the Geographies of Race

ACMRS Arizona
The Sundial (ACMRS)
7 min readMar 30, 2021

by Debapriya Sarkar

I sit with Kim F. Hall’s Things of Darkness as I conduct research on a project on early modern islands and shores. I have been contemplating how Lady Mary Wroth’s romance, The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania (1621), spans islands in the Mediterranean to create its international geopolitical network. Drawing on cartographic representations such as the frontispiece map in George Sandys’s A Relation of a Journey (1615), Wroth’s massive corpus intertwines accounts of maritime disasters, shipwrecks, and unexpected landings on islandic shores with discourses of travel and empire.

A 1610 map of a portion of Africa.
George Sandys’s ‘A Relation of a Journey Begun’ (1610) (Image from the Folger Shakespeare Library)

Things of Darkness provides an early and important study of the Urania that connects topics of female authority, subjecthood, and agency — by far the most prominent focus of Wroth scholarship — to the particularity of racialized, classed, and gendered bodies that populate the romance’s imperial networks. As Hall exposes how white English women appeal to tropes of fairness and blackness to navigate the geographies of romance, she also hints how these issues intersect with anxieties of environmental catastrophe, and with fantasies of natural refugia — in other words, with topics that seem to have become the purview of early modern ecocriticism.

1621 Cover of Lady Mary Wroth’s “The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania” depicting a city framed by colums.
1621 Cover of Lady Mary Wroth’s ‘The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania’ (Image from the Folger Shakespeare Library)

To excavate the logics of ecological thinking in Things of Darkness, I pause at Hall’s reading of an atypical encounter in the Urania: after a storm, Urania and her companions are stranded in Cyprus (“Venus’s Isle”), which Hall notes, is demarcated as a “barbarous,” “dangerous, strange,” and “un-Christian land.” In true romance fashion, the characters undergo trials in this strange environment. For Hall, one of the most “unusual” events in early modern literature occurs on this island in the Urania, when Urania’s maid, under enchantment, witnesses the illusion of “her beloved Allimarlus, embracing a black woman”:

Urania’s maide beheld as she beleeu’d Allimarlus in the second Towre, kissing and embracing a Blackmoore; which so farre inraged her, being passionatly in love with him, as she must goe to revenge her selfe of that injurie (Hall’s emphasis).

As Hall contemplates the fact that “the reader sees what the maid fantasizes, a white man embracing a black woman,” she wonders “why the first dark other in the text is conjured up by this silent and almost forgotten character?” Things of Darkness situates this episode alongside contemporary writings on travel, showing how Wroth’s tableau gives physical form to the anxiety that European women were in competition, in Hall’s words, both with the “glory of travel and adventure” and with non-European women the men might encounter in their ventures. The maid’s vision makes palpable the racialized calibration of beauty. Using fairness as the measure of worth, this minor character uses her racial difference from the “black woman” to erase her class difference from Allimarlus.

An ecocritical reading that centers the nonhuman natural world would focus on the island’s peculiar affordances, while an ecofeminist approach would attend to the ways in which female characters are affected in the “barbarous” place. We can catch glimpses of these approaches in Hall’s reading, which intimates how the situatedness of characters in this alien place is a precondition for the vision, even as it registers how the singular environment of “Venus’s Isle” makes the maid encounter in the “blackmoor” her own “affliction.”

Yet, a modified version of Hall’s question haunts me as I read the Urania via Things of Darkness for a project on islands and shores: “why [is] the first dark other in the text…conjured up by this silent and almost forgotten character” on a barbarous island? In particular, Hall’s emphasis that the maid is a “silent and almost forgotten character” pushes me to ask how the environment bends differently to the wills of different people in an ecology where ontology is predicated on beauty, status, race, and religion.

Given the values associated with the dark/fair binary that Things of Darkness has taught us to recognize, it is perhaps unsurprising that the romance is not invested in the developmental arc of the character who encounters the “dark other” as a manifestation of her inner turmoil. The maid becomes the vehicle for projecting the European woman’s racist logic onto the island, where the image becomes, in Wroth’s text, proof of the “barbarousness of the people who there inhabited.”

But the maid is also a proxy for the aristocratic women in the text and on the island, voicing their concerns about foreign women so that they do not have to give shape to their deepest fears. The reader, after all, perceives not Urania’s “affliction,” but her maid’s jealousy. A woman of low status is more easily fixed as a symbol, her sole purpose to mediate a racialized logic of beauty. In this way, the romance licenses characters of higher status to live the racist reality reproduced in the maid’s vision without being implicated in it.

Who, then, is afforded worlds to change and to reinvent themselves in the course of the Urania’s many pages of digressive disasters? Transporting the strands of inquiry my engagement with Things of Darkness has provoked to another island, I propose that a typically hostile maritime realm functions differently for “faire” aristocratic women. Let’s consider the titular character.

Introduced in the romance as the “faire Shepherdesse” (my emphasis), Urania is almost immediately revealed to be of noble birth. At court, she falls in love with the knight Parselius, who then goes missing. To cure her broken heart, her brother Amphilanthus takes her to the island of St. Maura, believing that her immersion in the waters will release her of her love. He throws her into the sea where, the narrator states, “no sooner had she suncke into the water, but the waves did beare her up againe, to shewe the glory they had in bearing such perfections; but then the Deepes, ambitious of such a prize, sought to obtaine her.”

We witness here how the island and its dangerous shores cooperate with Urania. The sea echoes her unsettled state: the waves oscillate between a promise of release “to beare her up” and the threat that “the Deepes” would “obtaine her.” Ultimately, it frees her of her memories of Parselius. Wroth’s narrator notes that upon returning to land, “Urania’s desires were no other, then to goe into Italy to see her father.” The sea is a being with conflicted desires, wishing both to “beare” her up and to consume her. One desire emerges victorious, and this resolution parallels how Urania’s unstable self, likewise riven with its own wild desires, gets unified by a single new wish: to see her father. Enacting and resolving her inner chaos, the dynamic waters enable the emergence of an altered self.*

I have lingered at two moments from the Urania’s capacious nautical imaginary to highlight how attention to fairness and blackness can expose the ways in which literary works distribute the promises and threats of environments unequally for the bodies inhabiting or moving through them. An island is never only an isolated place or a nonhuman entity that exerts its own agency. What the terraqueous environment does, how it speaks to readers, and whom it serves is signaled through categories of race, class, gender, and ability. A perilous waterscape can become a refuge for the “faire” Urania, but the maid’s refuge from a tempest becomes a dangerous place where she is trapped in the text’s investments in discourses of race, class, gender, and beauty.

As the cascading disasters of climate change drive more and more of the earth’s inhabitants to seek new refuge, it is incumbent on humanities scholars to find new ways to center their responsibility to the nonhuman world. Yet in a field that simultaneously grapples with the complicated legacies of humanism and the lures of posthumanism, one might ignore how the “human” itself is still too fraught a category, one that we cannot flatten without erasing how groups of humans are categorized, marginalized, and dispossessed.

The capacious historical archive, theoretical apparatus, and literary interpretations of Things of Darkness intimate that environmental and cultural forces are inseparable; this is especially apparent in Hall’s work on the Urania, one of the most capacious works of early modern literature. In this spirit, I want to close by suggesting that “we acknowledge ours,” to use Brandi K. Adams’s evocative phrase, the lessons of Things of Darkness as vital to developing an intersectional ecofeminism, and to uncovering the ongoing entanglements of environmental and racial justice.

* For a longer reading of the scene of Urania’s immersion in the waters, see my chapter in A Cultural History of the Sea in the Renaissance.

Debapriya Sarkar is Assistant Professor of English and Maritime Studies at the University of Connecticut. Her research interests include early modern literature and culture, history and philosophy of science, environmental humanities, and literature and social justice. She is currently completing a book project titled Possible Knowledge: The Literary Forms of Early Modern Science. She has co-edited, with Jenny C. Mann, a special issue of Philological Quarterly on “Imagining Early Modern Scientific Forms” (2019). Her work appears or is forthcoming in English Literary Renaissance, Shakespeare Studies, Spenser Studies, Exemplaria, and several edited collections. You can find her on Twitter @debapriya__s.



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